Tags and Tagging: from semiology to scatology

I’ve just been at a two-day workshop on “Tags and Tagging” organised by the “Branded Meeting Places” project.

Tags are of course becoming ubiquitous in the digital world: Flickr photos, del.icio.us bookmarks; at the digital/physical boundary: RFID and barcodes; and in the physical world: supermarket price stickers, luggage labels and images of Paddington Bear or wartime evacuees each with a brown paper label round their necks. Indeed we started off the day being given just such brown paper tags to design labels for ourselves.

Alan's tag

As well as being labels so we know each other, they were also used as digital identifiers using a mobile-phone-based image-recognition system, which has been used in a number of projects by the project team at Edinburgh (see some student projects here). We could photograph each others tags with our own phones, MMS the picture to a special phone number, then a few moments later an SMS message would arrive with the other person’s profile.

Being focused on a single topic and even single word ‘tag’ soon everything begins to be seen through the lens of “tagging”, so that when we left the building and saw a traffic warden at work outside the building, instantly the thought came “tagging the car”!

Vocal Thumbs logoThe workshop covered loads of ground and included the design and then construction of a real application – part of the project’s methodology of research through design. However, two things that I want to write about. The first is the way the workshop made me think about the ontology or maybe semiology of tags and tagging, and the second is a particular tag (or maybe label, notice?) … on a toilet door … yes the good old British scatological obsession.

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mobile design workshop

A couple of weeks ago I attended a mobile design workshop at microsoft labs in Cambridge. Great 2 days … people from academia and industry (and no not just MS, also Google, Yahoo, Sony, Nokia, …!)
Alan in Helmet

Most of the time was spent splitting into small working groups then coming back together for plenaries. I took part in groups discussing:

(1) tools to make it easier for those in developing countries to design mobile phone applications that suit their needs [session notes], rather than simply passing on applications and designs fitted for very different needs and infrastructure. During the discussion various applications of phone technology were cited that were completely different form those we would expect in the UK, US or Europe, but fitted the situations of people. These included using the address book as a ‘who owes what’ list for a trader … the ‘telephone numbers’ were in act amounts of money! This use of ‘ancillary’ parts of the phone rather than simply being a glorified communication device. Although he context of this was Africa, it also echoes studies of domestic phone use by Malay women in the UK by Fariza (who has just had her PhD viva :-)). She found alarm, calculator and things like that, at least as important as phone & text for the people she studied.

(2) ‘mindfulness’ and mobile phones … and of course the fact that normally they do the opposite interupting etc. … but just to not make us all agree too much, I said that mindfulness sounded like we should all become like rabbits; it is the looking forward and back, with all its stress, that is one of the things that make us human.

(3) task/data oriented interaction … escaping from the ‘application’. This was particularly relevant to me given onCue at aQtive was in this space as are Snip!t and work on TIM project with colleagues at Rome, Athens and recently new collaborators Madrid … with whom I had a short but lovely visit after CHI.

Task session